Shifting military balances in the world — particularly China's rise as a military power — led, in part, to the recent suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Russia and the United States. Since then, Washington and Moscow have both begun moving toward restoring the intermediate-range missile capabilities that they had surrendered under the Cold War-era treaty — enabling them to keep pace with Beijing's ongoing development of such weapons.
Pentagon officials confirmed March 11 that the United States plans to begin building components for ground-launched cruise missile systems, which are banned under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Research and development for such systems have reportedly taken place since late 2017, but the Pentagon is now moving ahead with the production of individual components to further developmental testing.
The Pentagon noted that it would halt this type of weapons development if Russia returned to compliance with the INF Treaty — which has been suspended since February — prior to its expiration in six months. Officials also stressed that the current cruise missile program is only intended to provide a conventional capability, rather than a nuclear one.
Why It Matters
The U.S. decision to move ahead with building ground-launched missiles is not entirely surprising, since early stages of research and development have been ongoing. It does, however, come at a notable time as the INF Treaty is only suspended currently, and is not set to completely expire until August 2019. The United States is thus clearly signaling that it is serious about building up an intermediate-range missile capability that had been banned since the treaty's signing in 1987.
While it may not be nuclear-armed, the real impact of such a missile lies in Washington's capacity (and intention) to deploy it overseas.
Current development could include modifying existing cruise missiles, or building an entirely new system. But aside from the Pentagon stressing the missiles will not have a nuclear role and only carry conventional warheads, it remains unclear what type of weapon the United States is building exactly. That said, the typical range of cruise missiles in the U.S. arsenal is between 350 and 2,500 km (roughly 220 and 1,550 miles) — making it a weapon that is really only useful when deployed outside the United States. So while it may not be nuclear-armed, the real impact of such a missile lies in Washington's capacity (and intention) to deploy it overseas.
Both the Eastern Europe (where the United States is balancing security capabilities with Russia) and East Asia (where the United States faces China) are prime candidates for places where Washington would want to build up such a capability. But not all countries — namely, those in Western Europe — are jumping to host these systems, for fear that it may complicate their relations with powerful neighbors or make them a bigger military target.
On Feb. 1, the United States suspended its compliance with the INF Treaty, which effectively puts a ban on deploying missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Washington has threatened to formalize its withdrawal by letting the treaty expire if Russia, which it has accused of developing weapons that violate the pact, doesn't return to compliance before then.
In the weeks following, the United States has indicated that it would develop the capabilities the treaty had since prevented should it indeed expire in August. And likewise, Russia — despite allegations that it has already been in noncompliance — also officially stated that it had ordered its defense industry to develop a ground-launched version of its Kalibr cruise missile.